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From Rio to Tokyo: Japanese Olympic athletes share their thoughts (Part 2)

From left, Saki Takakuwa, Mima Ito, Japan Sports Agency head Daichi Suzuki, Kenzo Shirai and Kenta Chida are seen having a relaxed discussion. (Mainichi)

The year 2016 has just begun, but the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will soon be upon us.

    Daichi Suzuki, the head of the Japan Sports Agency -- established in October 2015 -- asked four athletes of various ages and in various sports -- Kenzo Shirai (gymnastics), Saki Takakuwa (Paralympic sprinter), Kenta Chida (fencing) and Mima Ito (table tennis) -- about what they think about the Games and what they want to achieve in them.

    This is Part 2 of the interview. Part 1 was published on Jan. 1.

    * * * * *

    Daichi Suzuki: Alright then, next let's talk about how you became interested in the Olympics and Paralympics.

    Mima Ito (Mainichi)

    Saki Takakuwa: I love to exercise, and when I was in kindergarten I wrote that I wanted to be an Olympic athlete when I grew up. I received an artificial leg, and I saw the Paralympics on television for the first time when they were being held in Beijing. That reignited my desire to become an athlete on the world stage.

    Mima Ito: I looked up to Zhang Yining (of China), who took gold in the Beijing Olympics. I went to watch the London Games in person and the feeling was different. Everyone there wanted to win.

    Kenzo Shirai: For me it was the Japanese team victory at the Athens Olympics. When I woke up in the morning my parents (who were gymnastics instructors) were joyful. At that time I didn't understand what it means to win a gold medal, but now as an Olympic athlete for Japan I understand well how amazing it was that they put together that level of performance.

    Kenta Chida: My father used to be a fencer. He was supposed to represent Japan in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but because of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, he wasn't able to participate in that Olympics. From the time I started competitive fencing at age 13 to the time I entered university, my father coached me. At first I wasn't thinking about the Olympics at all, but I later started to want to fulfill the Olympic dream that was denied to my father to repay him. I was really happy the first time I was chosen to participate in the Olympics.

    DS: The Tokyo Olympics are four years away. Has there been any change in you stance toward your sport or anything like that?

    MI: My goal has been victory in the Olympics after the Rio Games. When Tokyo was picked (to host the next Olympics), I developed a feeling that we would definitely win. I'm moved each time I see the scene in which Tokyo was picked to host the games.

    DS: The pressure during locally held games is considerable. Are you ready for it?

    Kenzo Shirai (Mainichi)

    MI: I love being cheered on, and even in away matches, I can get everyone on my side. I think the Tokyo Olympic Games will be absolutely perfect for me.

    KS: I wasn't able to set a goal straight away, but I've gradually come to perform on the world stage, and now I understand that I'm in a position where I have to aim for gold in Tokyo.

    DS: Mr. Chida, you were involved in activities to draw the games to Tokyo, weren't you?

    KC: I expect Rio to form my last stage as an athlete, and I want to do my best there. I'm not thinking of continuing on until Tokyo. I'm from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, a disaster-hit area (in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami), so I want to do what I can to boost development of the area.

    DS: Do you intend to compete as a representative of the disaster-hit areas?

    KC: Certainly. I strongly sense that I'm being cheered on by locals, and I feel that I'm supported.

    DS: That being the case -- and this is an opinion from the sidelines -- there are hopes that you will continue until Tokyo after all, aren't there? Forgive me for talking about my own experiences, but I was in two Olympic Games and was aiming for a third, but four years is a long time. It was just one year before the games that I tried really hard. That was too late. I still think I should have steadily worked at it a bit more.

    KC: In the later years of your career, was the way you enjoyed our sport different from when you were young?

    DS: As I got older, I had a feeling of wanting to lift up those below me and liven things up, but there were times when I couldn't display my true ability and I really got caught up in lifting my own performance, so I didn't have any leeway. I wasn't equipped with all the conditions to continue competing, and I had to think about the future. I still wonder how I would have fared if I had continued competing. My feeling is that I'd like to have athletes keep going while they are able to.

    ST: I want to become an athlete with appeal, with spectators who come to see "Saki Takakuwa." And I want at least the main event area to be full every day. I think the athletes have to make an effort to convey the appeal of the Paralympics.

    DS: In a public opinion poll conducted by the Cabinet Office, 70.3 percent of respondents said they had an interest in the Paralympics, but 63.1 percent said they didn't want to go and see them. This surpassed the 36.4 percent who said that they did want to go.

    ST: Those figures were a shock. Japanese still have a strong perception that they must not touch disabilities. At the very least, those aiming for the Paralympics don't resist when others ask them what their disabilities are. I think this approach will lead to understanding of sports for the disabled. We'll send out a message, and I hope many people will take an interest.

    DS: Well then, is there anything in particular you would like to say to the Japan Sports Agency. I would like to hear what you have to say by all means.

    KS: In recent years, gymnastics has received young power at a quick pace. I want to tell it (the agency) to have high expectations for gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics.

    * * * * *

    Profiles

    - Kenzo Shirai

    Gymnast Kenzo Shirai first competed in a world championship tournament in Antwerp, Belgium, when he was 17 and one month. In 2014 he competed in the world championships in Nanning, China, and in 2015 he competed in Glasgow, Scotland, marking his third-straight world championships. In Glasgow, he helped Japan win the gold medal in the men's team all-around. Making use of his excellent twisting jumps, he also won individual gold in the floor exercise, his first individual gold in a major competition since Antwerp. Born in Yokohama, he is now 19 years old. He graduated from Kishine High School in Kanagawa Prefecture and is a student at Nippon Sport Science University.

    - Mima Ito

    Mima Ito, 15, started playing table tennis before she turned 3, influenced by her mother Minori. In March 2015, she won the singles title at the German Open at the age of 14 years and 152 days, becoming the youngest to win the honor. At the world championships in 2015, she was ranked among the top eight players, and she earned a berth on Japan's team heading to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. She hails from Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, and is a third-year student at Shoyo Junior High School. She is sponsored by Starts Corp.

    (This is Part 2 of a three-part series)

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